FSQ Faces / Behind the Tech: Welcome to Foursquare – Vikram

Vikram Gundeti joins the Foursquare team as a Distinguished Engineer.

Vikram Gundeti

Meet Vikram Gundeti, who joins the Foursquare team today as a Distinguished Engineer. A native of Hyderabad with extensive experience working on pioneering tech – such as Amazon’s Alexa – Vikram will help Foursquare build and perfect our products to help businesses take advantage of the many diverse use cases for location data.

Read our Q&A with Vikram below to learn more about his career and vision for the maximizing location’s full potential.

Tell us about your background and career path.
I grew up in Hyderabad, where I spent the first 26 years of my life. While I had a brief brush with computers in my high school, I really fell in love with them when I started at my college (IIIT-Hyderabad) where I pursued B.Tech in Computer Science. My first job in the industry was with Teradata, a database company. After spending a couple of years there, I joined Amazon Hyderabad in their Shopping Cart and Ordering organization. There, I had the opportunity to work on Dynamo, an eventually consistent key-value store used to power the shopping cart experiences on Amazon. Then I moved to Seattle in 2010 and got the rare opportunity to join the Alexa group as the first engineer. I have been fortunate enough to build some of the foundational components of the Alexa software stack, and contribute to some major launches within the Alexa organization (the original Echo launch, AVS API launch and communications experiences on Alexa devices such as drop-in and announcements). In my most recent stint within Alexa, I helped bootstrap a ML based system to help increase the relevancy of content delivered proactively to the user using various channels such as Notifications, cards on the Home screen of visual devices.

Please describe your primary area(s) of expertise. How will you apply these skills/expertise to your work at Foursquare/with location technology?
While I do not consider myself an expert in any particular area, I spent a major chunk of my career designing, implementing, and maintaining large scale distributed systems across various problem domains (e-commerce, communications, application platforms, customer engagement & monetization). I really admire what the team at Foursquare has been able to accomplish over the last few years by creating compelling enterprise products out of the location assets they have acquired over time. So, I’m very excited to be a part of this team and hoping that I am able to carry forward some of my learnings from Alexa and Amazon.

Have you worked with location data or technology before? What was that experience like?
I did a project way back in my college days to track the location of various vehicles in a fleet and publish it to a central server to do real-time reporting. This was in the pre-iphone days so finding a phone (or any device) that was able to track location information and make it accessible through APIs was itself a big challenge. After much exploration, I was able to find a motorola iden simulator that provided this information. Obviously, things have evolved a lot since then.

What are the greatest opportunities for impact/innovation do you see for location data and technology?
Foursquare has some unique assets in the location space: information about places, the visitation patterns and behaviors around such places, and the tools to derive insights from movements of users between different places. There are a lot of verticals beyond advertising that can leverage these assets to deliver compelling user experiences. I see two important areas where Foursquare will have a huge role to play in the industry:

  • A) Personalization of experiences on-the-go, especially with AR glasses and self-driving taxis on the horizon.
  • B) Generating insights from vast amounts of geo-spatial data at different levels of specificity to unlock value across various business verticals (from inspecting foot traffic trends in a larger location like a mall, to traffic trends in a locality to migration trends across states, and beyond).

As an engineer, you’ve experienced firsthand how new technologies can be created to solve some of the greatest challenges facing businesses and society today. What are some areas/challenges that you see as ripe for innovation, and what might that innovation look like?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the future of hybrid work. Without some technological innovation in this space, we might end up with the worst of both models of work. For instance, remote white-boarding still is a challenge. I’m a big believer that AR and VR will play a big role in this space.

I know for a fact, both through customer anecdotes and some first hand accounts, that virtual assistants have positively impacted the lives of senior citizens and people with disabilities. It is my hope and belief that virtual assistants and AI in general, will continue to play a big role in making technology more accessible to all people.

What do you think are the most important skills for an engineer to develop/maintain in order to have a thriving career?
The most important skill required for being a technical IC leader is the ability to influence without having direct authority. A lot of the time this boils down to building the right relationships and earning credibility at all levels of the organization you work with. This also helps you create an environment that fosters healthy conflict and provides the means to deal with it in a constructive way.

Another thing is to continuously invest in learning new tools & technologies and keeping yourself abreast of the latest trends in the industry. This can be achieved either by carving off time to learn new things (which is easier said than done) or choosing projects that will act as a forcing function to learn new stuff.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I received from my managers is “to focus on impact over involvement,” Impact would drive you to commit deeply to the most important things rather than be involved with nearly everything. I received this advice when I was struggling with time management and it has been very helpful for me in prioritizing things that I need to commit my time to.